I know for many liberals, public radio is sacred and above reproach, or criticism. I’ve had too many conversations with so-called progressives that began with an indictment of mainstream news sources, only to be asked, “do you listen to public radio,” as if that solved the problem.
For me, public radio of the NPR variety is a fallback; something I listen to when I can’t find anything else on the dial. I will listen to certain segments of their programming, like Maine Things Considered, although of late, even Maine-based news seems to be lacking anything more than a business-friendly veneer to the stories reported. I do enjoy Terry Gross (one of the best interviewers anywhere, IMHO) and Fresh Air; I wish our own affiliates would carry Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now program.
Yesterday, while driving to an appointment, I caught the type of programming that I wish was the norm, rather than the all-too-infrequent exception. Alternative Radio carried Michael Eric Dyson’s Hip-hop Culture and the Legacy of Tupac Shakur. I had heard an earlier promo for this and made a mental note, mostly out of curiosity, to try to listen in. The busyness of life drove it from my thoughts, but sheer coincidence and time and my car intersected, allowing me to catch most of this 60 minute broadcast.
Let me first say that compared to my knowledge of the history of popular forms of music, such as rock, pop, and even less popular genres like jazz and blues, I know very little about rap or hip-hop. Other than the more political raps that I’ve heard from Public Enemy and Michael Franti, I'd say my knowledge of this musical form is surface, at best.
For someone like me, Dyson’s academic presentation, mixed with his own obvious love of rap and hip-hop, and his keen ability to rap and quote lyric after lyric from the past 20 or so years of hip-hop, was truly amazing. It’s rare to hear this type of programming anywhere except low-power FM and some community-based stations. Dyson’s historical perspective, political understanding and sympathetic treatment of Shakur revealed a totally different character than I’d been conditioned to view him as. It made me realize that I have a lot to learn about this branch music and culture. From Shakur’s roots, informed by Reaganomics and the accompanying poverty he experienced, Dyson’s presentation cast Shakur in a much different light than he was often portrayed by the press and the music industry. Dyson's talk was informative for the honest and refreshing way that he was able to demystify Shakur, who like many performers and cultural icons, ends up misrepresented, most often to cultivate an image, which will then be exploited through marketing.
I never knew that Shakur was deeply influenced by Shakepeare and aspired to be an actor. He was also a voracious reader, who read widely and across disciplines, even though he had dropped out of school. With Dyson deftly deconstructing his lyrics, for the first time, I saw Shakur as not some gansta thug wannabe, a cardboard caricature created by the pop culture machine--but someone who was a human being--a complex and intelligent performer and overtly political in his songwriting, not the
Despite some of my concerns about public radio, it still provides opportunities for alternative viewpoints. Of course, I’d be happy to see more segments like yesterday afternoon’s outstanding hour of programming.